I had undergone a transformation over the past year and a half. On the Colorado Trail in the summer of 2014, I found myself so scared of bears after hearing one huffing and stomping around in close proximity to my tent one night that I thought they were waiting around every bend. I would get quizzical looks from people on the trail while passing them, for they had heard me singing quite loudly to myself before they had came into view. The bears (both real and imaginary) would be one of the reasons I left the trail a few days later. Fast forward a few months, I am camping out in a state forest in northern Michigan while taking a Wilderness First Responder Course. On three of the five nights, I hear black bears tramping around the forest, sneezing and scratching their backs against big trees. Yet this time, I had no fear. To validate my feelings, I remained fearless and calm while being charged by a black bear mother with her cub half a year later in northern Alaska.
Though I now mostly lacked fear of bears, there has remained a niggling thought always present in the back of my mind. Statistically, my odds of ever being mauled by a bear are extremely low. Cases like Timothy Treadwell (who lived in close proximity to brown bears before being mauled in Katmai N.P.) demonstrated how tolerant bears are. Yet, the cultural fear that was ingrained in me did remain. I had read the accounts of people being attacked in their tents while they slept, or of those that had been stalked by grizzlies in areas not far from where I am now living. Sure, these are extremely rare instances, but they are not reassuring for the emotional side of my brain. And besides, all my close bear encounters up to this point were black bears, not grizzlies. While black bears certainly can be dangerous, they lack the aura that surrounds grizzlies. Especially those of the far north.
Fall came and went with the changing colors of the leaves and tundra. Snow began to fall on the mountains, ultimately creeping down until snow covered the entire valley. Cold began to grip the land, as the lakes and ponds quickly froze up, while ice began to enshroud the creeks and rivers. I continued my treks into the country and had not seen any sign of bears for quite some time by mid October. It was highly likely that the vast majority (if not all) had denned up for the next 7 months. However, that pestering thought remained in the back of my mind. Although even more unlikely than previous scenarios, there was the infinitesimal chance of coming across a winter bear, the worst kind. A winter bear was hungry, relentless, and afraid of absolutely nothing. These bears didn’t stay out late because they wished to socialize; rather they’re usually old, hungry and eager to lock their teeth on anything that moves. In traditional times, natives would carry spears with them on winter journeys in case they ran into the ice bear. Dog mushers today still carry heavy weaponry on them in case of this possible scenario. A number of years ago, there was such a meeting between a dog team and a winter bear on the pipeline access trail between Wiseman and Coldfoot. A tragic event, that nobody would wish to repeat. It was with these thoughts in mind that I traveled through the landscape.
Late in November, I had a group of Chinese guests that signed up for an aurora tour. An aurora tour consists of driving guests from Coldfoot to Wiseman and hanging out at a historic gold miner’s cabin, where we watch the aurora if it presents itself. Clouds covered the night sky and snow began to fall as we loaded into the van for our departure. I had a sour mood, as I do not enjoy staying out late staring at clouds. Thirty minutes later we were in Wiseman. They shuffled into the cabin and I assumed my post next to the double barrel wood stove outside. After building a fire, I began to scan the sky for any sign of aurora, while falling snow sizzled as it came into contact with the wood stove. The guests weren’t interested in much in this area, besides getting some selfies with the aurora to post on Facebook, so it would be a relatively easy night.
As one could likely imagine, staring at the clouds gets pretty boring after a certain point. I fiddled with the fire as much as I could, while I tried to find something interesting to look at in the near area. Adjacent to the wood stove and cabin, there is a rough vehicle path that leads back to a summer resident’s storage area. Looking down the path, I detected movement no more than 30 yards away. That grabbed my attention. I squinted, attempting to gain a better view through the falling snow. Were my eyes deceiving me? It definitely seemed as if something was moving back and forth. Something large. I put the woodstove, between myself and whatever it was that lay out there. Turning on my headlamp, I tried to gain a glimpse of what it was, if anything, that lay out there. The beam from my headlamp struggled through the falling snow and dark night, but I picked up a gleam that looked like a pair of eyes. “Oh shit. This isn’t a joke.” I thought to myself. The dark shape had resembled a bear before and now I was almost certain. I was a mere thirty yards away from one of my greatest fears, a winter bear.
It was the end of November. There was over two feet of snow on the ground and it had been cold. The temperature frequently dropping down below twenty below zero. There wasn’t much life out and about at this time of year, certainly not enough for a bear to sustain himself. I was legitimately scared. What was I to do? Do I go into the cabin and alert the group? Should I retreat ten yards to the van that lay behind me? My mind was racing and my heart was thumping. I grabbed the iron poker that lay at my feet and began to beat on the woodstove. “Get out of here!” “Go!” It didn’t seem to work. From my view, it was just moving back and forth, contemplating its next move. I was literally shaking in my boots at this point in terror. If bears can sense fear, this one’s sensors must have been going off the charts.
I finally decided that I would retreat to the van. Bringing the poker with me, I retreated slowly then quickly moved the final few yards, slamming the door behind me. My heart was still thumping and I thought I should get a better view of what I’m contending with. I started the van, put it in reverse and angled the lights down the path to the left of the woodstove. Angled correctly, I turned the brights on to find that my foe was a clump of alder trees, twenty five yards distant. I had sworn it was a bear. “What an idiot,” I thought to myself. I put the van back where it was and got out. Looking down the path again it still seemed like it was a bear. I cautiously walked down the path, for there still was a part of me that thought there was a bear there, and shined my headlamp on the location where my fabled bear was. Sure enough, it was just the trees. I wandered back down the post and assumed my post once again with my tail between my knees, hoping the guests inside hadn’t noticed or heard anything odd going on outside.
I walked into the cabin to check in, “How are you guys doing in here? Nothing going on out there.” We went back to Coldfoot a couple of hours later, with no sign of the aurora or problems with any of the guests, yet sure enough, my mind had conjured up a way to provide enough excitement for the otherwise dull evening.